Monday, May 30, 2016

On haiku: When 5-7-5 probably isn't, and how I count my own tongue


I think I may have written about haiku and syllables before, but it’s always worth returning to. Why? Because language and rhythm are what make us. Because every movement your tongue makes tells us something of who you are. The skill of silkenness is not to be overlooked. Rhythm can hypnotise your listener. Or shock them.

Every time I write a haiku, I end up doing some kind of rhythm/syllable check. Note I end up doing it, not start with it. The wrong way of writing a haiku is to start with a structure of "5-7-5 syllables” and try to fill it in like a crossword puzzle. Only the ugly can come about, forced into mouthboxes like eggs being sorted. No, the words must flow, and they must do so in order to carry ideas on them, like tiny paper boats.

Based on this, there is nothing to say that a ‘heavy’ 5-7-5 "Western syllable” style is wrong (or right). It’s just that it’s easier to get something that is wrong in many ways once you take this as your starting point. English is a crazy language: brutal like a mattock in some places, whispering like ice in others, and convoluted to the point of lengthiness elsewhere. It is the city of languages, hybrid and evolved, an amalgamation and a series of opportunities.

Japanese, on the other hand, knows it is Japanese. The basic vowel or consonant-vowel pattern means only the Japanese could have come up with such a regulated structure across its culture so easily. Here’s a classic Basho poem, in the original Japanese for example:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The monophthongic nature tugs at a simplicity Westerners can only dream of. Perhaps our dreams are tangled and confused because our tongue is. How can we attain something close to zen if we can’t even use our language to begin to describe it?

Anyway, to return to the path. For me, one of the best ways to learn to write haiku is to read the Japanese original (for me - transcribed, but not translated, as above), and contemplate the flow of mora. By understanding and practising the original rhythm of haiku, I think it gets a lot easier to let ideas flow into words which are nearer the end goal, than to labouriously count out words until you have the right number.

These mora are closer to heartbeats than Western syllables. Take this section from wikipedia, for instance, which describes place names:

"the Japanese name for "Japan", 日本, has two different pronunciations, one with three morae (Nihon) and one with four (Nippon). In the hiragana spelling, the three morae of Ni-ho-n are represented by three characters (にほん), and the four morae of Ni-p-po-n need four characters to be written out as にっぽん.

"Similarly, the names Tōkyō (to-u-kyo-u とうきょう), Ōsaka (o-o-sa-ka おおさか), and Nagasaki (na-ga-sa-ki ながさき) all have four morae, even though, on this analysis, they can be said to have two, three and four syllables, respectively."

Bearing that in mind, my own haiku can often end up fairly short. In English, 5 mora doesn’t give you much space to play. On the flip side, the constraint does force a more truncated snapshot, a clearer sense of the haiku moment and the idea of “a single breath”. Sometimes you can say too much in 17 syllables.

Here’s an example of something that ran through my head the other morning, using Western syllables:

the early shadows 
releasing the little mouse
one step at a time 

With space to add syllables, I often find myself using longer words, adding in adjectives like “little”, or more “filler” like the word “the”. 

In contrast, here’s a version cut down to a mora-style count:

early shadows 
releasing a mouse 
step by step 

This to me feels lighter, and more elusive as a result. it plays on the winds, and flits around like a butterfly more. There is an airy space that invites the viewer to reflect instead of read. Hopefully that gets closer to the heart of what haiku set out to do - put us back in touch with both ourselves and the world around us.

(Sometimes I do fall back to a Western style syllable count, if I think it’s still an interesting output.)

For reference, my own mora-style count tries to follow something fairly Japanese, and basically takes any jump from one “heavy” consonant to another as a new mora, including consonants at the end of a word. So “barren” would be 3 mora but “barrow” I would probably count as 2 and “bear” as 1. Sometimes that means one word can “bleed" into another, eg. “a part of” would be counted as “a-par-to-f”. If I’m not sure, I’ll refer back to the question of whether it flows as I want it to or not - or use another word.

Hopefully this explains a bit why my haiku are not always what most people consider “5-7-5”. This is actually the least interesting aspect of haiku, and I hope to never write about it ever again. For more interesting stuff, have a look on the web. Here’s a good starter.

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